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Privilege



In the 2000s an editor on The Economist said that it was unacceptable to use the term “underprivileged” because “privilege”, like sovereignty, cannot be divided—you cannot have degrees of privilege; and, therefore, you cannot be “underprivileged”. You are either privileged or not—so you cannot use the non-term “underprivileged” to advance an argument.


It’s a lawyer’s answer because it addresses the letter of the argument, not the spirit.


In rhetorical terms it can work because if you can show that your opponent doesn’t understand the words he uses then nobody will take the rest of his argument seriously, even if the overall point is true.


It’s the same as “fascist adjacent”—because “adjacent” only refers to a spatial relation, you could stop a person who advanced an argument with that word through clarification, and so say “well, what you’ve just said is meaningless, but if you could restate it in a way that makes sense then maybe we can talk.”


But it’s playing a game, it’s uncharitable, because “you know what I mean”—then again, in a political dispute you don’t want to be charitable to your opponent; so The Economist editor, already a precision fiend, could stop leftist arguments like that dead—and also derived psychological satisfaction from precise use of language.


To be charitable, if someone says “there are too many underprivileged children in Britain” or “we face a white privilege crisis” then here’s what their argument really means, the implicit ideas behind the concept’s metaphorical extension:


“A long time ago, we had a thing called ‘benefit of clergy’—if you could prove in court that you could read, then you would have your case transferred to an ecclesiastical court and so not face certain dire penalties. This was a privilege, a private law—and aristocrats had certain similar privileges like that as well, except inherited.


Now, we got rid of all those privileges ages ago—and today we all think they’re unjust, that’s just taken as a norm today. There aren’t privileges in law anymore—especially hereditary privileges, like the aristocrats used to have.


However, today there are things—things like the English language, or the visual culture of England, or statues of Nelson—that provide an implicit advantage to non-migrant citizens in this country, it’s a hereditary advantage.


And what we’re saying, when we say ‘white privilege’ or ‘underprivileged’, is that, by metaphorical extension, these things are like the old aristocracy—now we all agree, you agree, that it was wrong for there to be hereditary aristocratic privilege, or privilege of clergy; so why do you support this privilege now?”


This is what people really mean today by “privilege”; now, not everyone who uses the word knows that or could elaborate it—but it’s those implicit assumptions that underpin the word’s usage today.


So the way they use it, unless you’re being uncharitable, isn’t actually meaningless—and the people who blunt them in rhetorical terms know that really.


What they’re saying is a logical extension of the destruction of the aristocracy and the clergy—to put what they say in strict terms they mean “by metaphorical extension or in functional terms there are things that exist today, like statues of Lord Nelson, that confer an implicit privilege on non-migrant (white) groups, and so the whites are like a hereditary aristocracy—and it is agreed by all that hereditary aristocracy is bad; ergo, we must ‘address’ (destroy) this privilege.”


That all makes sense, and what it reveals is that once you start to attack the aristocracy, the king, and the clergy it just never stops—until, like Soviet Russia, you persecute the only man in the village with his own pig because he’s “a kulak” and, therefore, “like the Tsar” (which, in fact, in a pale way he is).


The reason the right doesn’t go into this detail is because they are, for the most part, conservative—and so they accept, for example, that aristocrats and clergymen shouldn’t have privileges (indeed, that is what the liberal free-trade Economist always thought); and yet they hope to stop that process where privileges are stripped at, say, inheritance.


But the logic of the argument demands that the statue of Nelson comes down, because it confers on non-migrant populations a sense of hereditary superiority which gives them an “unearned edge” over migrant populations.


Since conservatives today will often call themselves “meritocrats” (itself a recent term from the 1950s), how can they defend this unearned implicit privilege? Hence current progressive politics emerges as a logical extension of the assumptions made by classical liberalism—not through its negation, as some would say.


So in their own terms, they can’t defend this unearned privilege—but they can play games with the strict definition of “privilege” in the hope they can placate the mob for another generation.


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